From duffels to slings to briefcases to messenger bags and backpacks, there’s no shortage of options on the market for hauling your gear and belongings. However, if you’re looking for pure utility, durability, and cargo space, there’s objectively no better choice than a modern rucksack. Utilizing a simplistic design where fashion takes a backseat to function, contemporary rucksacks were first introduced to meet the needs of military personnel, and have since become an integral component of the U.S. Army Special Forces’ training program, which sees trainees carry packs heavily loaded with military equipment and supplies over vast distances.
Characterized by their spartan and incredibly rugged nature, military rucksacks were eventually adopted and adapted by the civilian world, where the bags are often slightly tweaked in order to better lend themselves to everything from everyday use to camping to hiking — or “rucking.” With so many options on today’s market, we thought we’d take the time to round up our picks for the latest and greatest models currently available in this guide to the best rucksacks you can buy. In addition to counting down our picks, we’ll also be delving into what exactly a rucksack is, the bag’s history, and what to consider when shopping for one.
Early Mankind To Modern Military
The History Of The Rucksack
Taking its name from “der rücken,” the German word for “the back,” rucksacks have been used by military forces for decades, though they also represent some of the very first bags ever used by humans, dating all the way back to the Copper Age. These bags were essentially primitive, single-pocket backpacks with a soft flap opening that were often crafted from animal skins or furs and typically constructed around a rigid frame — not unlike a modern backpacking pack. In fact, Ötzi the Iceman mummy was famously discovered in the Val Senales Valley in Italy with a primitive fur-construction rucksack.
Some of the earliest military use of what we’d today identify as a rucksack began with Union soldiers in the Civil War, who used a canvas knapsack with a single main compartment, a flap opening, and leather straps for securing additional gear. This design saw continued use into the early 1900s, receiving minor tweaks along the way. In 1909, the U.S. Army Infantry Equipment Board convened to review standard-issue gear for soldiers, resulting in new specifications that led to the creation of the olive drab canvas haversack. From this point, the U.S. Military began using increasingly purpose-built and specific bags such as the M1936 haversack.
In 1941, the War Department tasked the National Ski Association with evaluating multiple new bag designs, leading the NSA to select a rucksack. Built around an external metal frame, this rugged bag was made from duck canvas or rattan and was engineered specifically for military personnel engaging in mountain warfare. Capable of supporting heavy loads thanks to reinforcements at key stress points, these bags featured a truly game-changing shoulder and waist strap system that better-distributed weight across the wearer’s body — a design that’s been utilized on the majority of rucksacks and backpacks ever since.
Over the last 80 or so years, rucksacks have continued to evolve, gaining ever lighter, more rugged, and more weatherproof materials and construction techniques, additional pockets and organizational systems, and a slew of other contemporary updates. Despite their advancements, the basic concept of rucksacks has gone largely unchanged, with the bags being designed to carry heavy loads across long distances — a practice that’s known as “rucking.”
Unpacking The Finer Points Of Rucksacks
Though very similar to backpacks in many ways, rucksacks are engineered with a single focus in mind: hauling heavy loads on foot for prolonged periods over vast distances. As such, rucksacks tend to be markedly more rugged and robust compared to traditional bookbag-style backpacks. In addition to being able to carry more weight — and often afford more cargo space — rucksacks also do a far better job of spreading the bag’s weight across the upper body of their wearers thanks to suspension systems comprised of shoulder straps paired with waist belts and sternum straps.
Frequently capable of accomodating several hundred pounds of gear, most rucksacks sport a clamshell or soft-flap opening at the top of the bag that grants access to the main compartment. Like most military garments or pieces of gear — or military-inspired offerings — rucksacks tend to boast an extremely minimalistic outward appearance, with spartan designs that favor function over form. Compared to backpacks, rucksacks can often be overkill for most daily-use needs, however, for applications such as camping, backpacking, and hiking, rucksacks are truly hard to beat.
Bang For Your Ruck
Factors To Consider When Buying A Rucksack
Though they’re pretty much all designed for the same purposes, rucksacks do possess a myriad of finer points to which one should be privy when shopping. Below, we’ve highlighted five of the most crucial areas to take into consideration before pulling the trigger on your purchase.
Primary Storage: Because rucks are meant for schlepping around heavy loads, the amount of storage space that they offer is immensely important. This metric is usually measured in liters (or gallons). Additionally, you’ll also want to explore a bag’s weight capacity (i.e. how many pounds of gear it can accommodate without ripping or failing).
Supplementary Storage: Rucksacks are typically focused on and built around a single main compartment, though in recent times we’ve seen these primary areas supplemented with additional exterior pockets, as well as straps, MOLLE webbing, and other attachment points for hauling extra gear on the bag’s exterior. Some rucksacks are also expandable and can be opened up to unlock even more storage space.
Materials: Just like with any regular backpack, the materials used to construct a rucksack play an enormous role in its overall durability and quality. This is especially important when dealing with rucksacks as these vessels need to be able to withstand immense loads. As such, rucksacks tend to be crafted from particularly hardwearing materials like CORDURA, X-Pac, and ballistic-grade and other high-tenacity, high-denier nylons.
Load-Bearing Capabilities: Unsurprisingly, a rucksack’s load-bearing capabilities play an enormous role in determining its overall quality, as the entire purpose of these bags is to be able to carry ample gear for extended durations. As a result, factors such as the construction techniques used to produce a bag and what areas are reinforced both play pivotal roles in a rucksack’s performance and capabilities.
Style: Though rucksacks put a premium on functionality and utility over aesthetics, these bags nonetheless come in a wide variety of different styles, as well as in a host of different colors. This segment is comprised of everything from hardcore military packs to rucksack-backpack hybrids and practically everything in between. So, while we’d always recommend focusing more on utility when buying a ruck, there’s nothing wrong with letting your personal taste play a minor role in your decision.
Fjällräven Rucksack No. 21
Fjällräven’s Rucksack No. 21 is a classic, tried-and-true ruck with an old-school Scandanavian design. Weighing just 2.1lbs, the Rucksack No. 21 is made from a waxed version of Fjällräven’s proprietary G-1000 HeavyDuty Eco material — a rugged and sustainably-made poly-cotton blend — and accented with genuine leather straps. This bag also features a main compartment that boasts multiple organizers, a seat pad, and a laptop sleeve that can fit notebooks of up to 15”. This bag’s shell can also be re-waxed at any time, guaranteeing long-term water resistance.
Primary Construction: Waxed G-1000 HeavyDuty Eco
Volume: 20 Liters
Chrome Industries Tensile Ruckpack
Backed by a lifetime warranty, the Chrome Industries Tensile Ruckpack was designed with a major focus on structure and strength, having been crafted from a recycled, lightweight, laminated ripstop nylon that’s been finished with Chrome’s Truss 5 Bar Construction. The bag uses a flap-opening main compartment that’s secured with one of Chrome Industries’ signature vintage seatbelt-style aluminum buckles, as well as a secondary drawstring closure. This bag also features multiple exterior attachment loops, a quick-access exterior pocket, and a sternum strap that’s been designed to distribute weight across the wearer’s torso.
Primary Construction: Recycled 3-Layer Laminated Nylon & Polyester
Volume: 25 Liters
Filson Oil Finish Rucksack
The latest bag from renowned American heritage brand Filson, the Oil Finish Rucksack is an incredibly sturdy backpack with an unmistakably vintage-inspired appearance. The bag’s main compartment is protected by a storm-cinch closure that’s further fortified via a flap cover which is secured by a set of brass-finished G-hooks. Constructed around a water-resistant 14oz waxed-cotton canvas shell with a nylon lining, this Filson ruck also boasts a set of zippered exterior pockets, padded shoulder straps, a padded back panel, and a padded laptop sleeve.
Primary Construction: 14oz Waxed Cotton Canvas
Volume: 31 Liters
Topo Designs Rover Pack Heritage Canvas
Made in America, Topo Designs’ Rover Pack Heritage Canvas is an updated, top-shelf take on one of the brand’s most popular backpacks that sees its standard construction replaced with a primary DWR-finished 12oz cotton canvas shell that’s supplemented via a 210 nylon pack cloth liner, CORDURA, and Horween leather. Offered in multiple color options, this old-school-inspired design conceals an internal laptop sleeve, a 20-liter main compartment, and a pair of zipper-secured exterior pockets — one of which is built into the bag’s storm flap.
Primary Construction: DWR-Coated 12oz Cotton Canvas, CORDURA, & Horween Leather
Volume: 20 Liters
Bellroy Venture Backpack 22L
Bellroy’s Venture Backpack 22L is an ultra-modern take on a traditional rucksack that incorporates a host of contemporary features and amenities into its streamlined and minimalist design. Made from 100% recycled nylon, this bag boasts a dual-zippered dropdown front panel that grants access to the entirety of the main compartment, plus a padded 16” laptop sleeve with a document slip pocket, an adjustable slide hook flap closure, a pair of internal zip mesh pockets, contoured back and shoulder strap padding, adjustable sternum strap, and a soft-lined quick-access pocket for housing phones, SD cards, and other small valuables. Produced in black-on-black, navy blue, or OD green color options, this bag also comes protected by Bellroy’s three-year warranty.
Primary Construction: Recycled Nylon
Volume: 22 Liters
Though DSPTCH’s Rucksack is a modern and thoroughly-calculated bag, it nonetheless possesses all of the hallmark traits of a classic ruck. Engineered with a focus on loadbearing and long-term comfort, the bag features mil-spec webbing, a panel-loading design, Duraflex hardware, and 25 liters of internal storage space. Made entirely in America, the bag is made from ultra-rugged 1,680-denier nylon, though if you somehow manage to damage this ballistic-grade material, DSPTCH stands behind the product with a generous lifetime warranty. On top of a 1-inch-thick padded laptop sleeve, this rucksack — which is based on traditional military rucks —also features an expandable top with a drawstring closure and a flap-top with two integrated quick-access pockets.
Primary Construction: DWR-Coated 1,680D Ballistic Nylon
Volume: 25 Liters
Peak Design Everyday Backpack
When Peak Design set out to revamp its already award-winning Everyday Backpack, the company placed enormous importance on comfort, ease of access, expansion, and, most of all, durability — traits that also allow it to excel as a rucksack. Impervious to the elements, this hardwearing backpack is made from a 400-denier nylon canvas that’s both DWR-impregnated and double PU-coated. This bag is also offered in four color options, as well as in a larger 30-liter size. And, in addition to an optional load-stabilizing waist belt, Peak Design also sells a myriad of packing cubes and camera accessories that are compatible with its Everyday Backpack.
Primary Construction: DWR-Coated & Double PU-Coated 400D Nyon
Volume: 20 Liters
Mission Workshop Speedwell
The Mission Workshop Speedwell is an ultra-rugged rucksack that’s cut from either Dimension-Polyant X-Pac VX21 or VX25 fabric — both of which are ridiculously durable, resistant to tearing, and fully weatherproof. The American-made bag boasts a padded and zippered laptop pocket for notebooks of up to 16”, dual exterior water bottle pockets, an internal compartment for hydration bladders of up to 3 liters, an adjustable waist belt, a light loop attachment, and a flap-top secured via a magnetic FIDLOCK buckle. On top of the VX21 and VX25 versions, the Speedwell is also offered in a MultiCam 500D CORDURA variant.
Primary Construction: X-Pac VX21 or VX25 Fabric (or 500D CORDURA)
Volume: 20 Liters
Defy Menace Backpack 2.0 X-Pac
If one set out to produce an ultra-capable modern rucksack with zero concern for the cost of materials or hardware, it would almost certainly look a whole lot like Defy’s Menace Backpack. Boasting 18 liters of internal real estate, this 2.75lb bag features a DWR-coated X-Pac VX21 primary construction, 1” mil-spec webbing, YKK VISLON AquaGuard zippers, a Silver 500 Denier CORDURA liner, a laptop sleeve fortified with closed-cell foam padding, and 2” mil-spec webbing-wrapped shoulder straps that are padded using the same closed-cell foam. The backpack’s main compartment is also held closed using a 2” AustriAlpin COBRA buckle.
Primary Construction: DWR-Coated X-PacVX21
Volume: 18 Liters
When it comes to modern rucksacks, nobody does it better than the seasoned experts at GORUCK, as the company’s bags have been setting the standard in the segment since the Floridian firm’s inception in 2008. Sold in 21- and 26-liter sizes and produced in seven solid and camo color options, GORUCK’s immensely popular GR1 bag was designed by Special Forces soldiers operating in Baghdad and modeled after the medical rucks they carried — leading to its flat-lay-opening setup and ridiculously durable 1,000-denier CORDURA construction. Other highlights on this TSA-compliant bag include three external rows of MOLLE webbing, an external slant pocket, a trio of interior pockets, a removable hard plastic frame sheet, glove-friendly YKK zippers with 550 paracord pulls, shoulder straps with ultra-thick padding, and a literally bombproof suspended laptop compartment with a false bottom. This extremely rugged, American-made bag also comes backed by GORUCK’s SCARS Lifetime Guarantee.
Primary Construction: 1,000D CORDURA
Volume: 21 Liters
Tanner Goods Koru Rucksack
Tipping the scales at only 2.5lbs while affording 34 liters of storage space, Tanner Goods’ Koru Rucksack is a more top-shelf take on a classic ruck that’s designed in Portland, Oregon, and crafted in León, Mexico. Equipped with six pockets, including a zippered laptop sleeve and a water bottle pocket, the Koru Ruck is made from a material called Konbu fabric which is derived from military-grade CORDURA fibers and manufactured using a proprietary technique developed by a special mill in Osaka, Japan. This bag also features two-way zippers, nylon webbing straps, a side catch-all compartment, a 15” laptop sleeve, an adjustable shoulder strap system, aircraft-grade hardware, and premium black English bridle leather accents.
Primary Construction: Konbu Fabric
Volume: 34 Liters
Mystery Ranch Mountain Ruck
While other offerings on this list are merely inspired by military gear, Mystery Ranch’s Mountain Ruck is a bonafide mil-spec vessel that’s been engineered from the ground up for hardcore, long-range rucking. As such, the ruck is made in America from a custom Teflon and PU-coated 500-denier CORDURA, is compatible with H-style jump harnesses, and is equipped with Mystery Ranch’s Bolstered Ventilation and Stability system that allows the pack to comfortably be worn over body armor. Affording a whopping 87.5 liters of storage, this bag also features water-repellent YKK zippers, PALS webbing, autolocking buckles, two internal hydration pockets, and removable bolsters.
Primary Construction: Teflon & PU-Coated 500D CORDURA
Volume: 87.5 Liters
The Best Backpacks For Everyday Carry
Looking for a bag that’s a little more streamlined and a bit less over-engineered? Then be sure to check out our guide to the best everyday carry backpacks for the finest options currently in production.